You can expect two things from a night with Martha and George, the warring couple at the heart of Edward Albee’s 1962 classic, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: an argument and a drink.

And you should be so lucky. Every one of the couple’s fights are well-oiled and neatly choreographed spectacles; a mix of sharp barbs, elegant takedowns and biting wit that only those with years of shared history can attain, and revel in.

Meanwhile, every drink is over-poured and over ice. Naturally.

Over the course of one night, Martha and George introduce two newcomers – the bright-eyed Honey and bushy-tailed biologist Nick – to the social sphere of a middling University in New England the only way they know how; by getting drunker, flirtier and more creative in their personal battles.

Harvey Zielinski, Emily Goddard and David Whiteley in Red Stitch’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Photo © Jodie Hutchinson

Tackling the role in Red Stitch Theatre’s newest revival are real-life couple Kat Stewart and David Whiteley, who met during an early Red Stitch production over 20 years ago. Albee’s show is no stranger to this kind of stunt casting. The success of Mike Nichols 1966 film adaptation is due in part to the free press afforded it by the public’s obsession with the tumult of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s marriage.

It’s odd though that Martha and George’s relationship is often the weakest part of this new production, though what could be a cataclysmic weakness doesn’t compromise the show as a whole. Red Stitch’s staging is fascinating, if uneven. Direction and design are impeccable, and the performances – when they land – are fresh and innovative. But the production feels inconsistent, even fragmentary.

The cast is talented, but they struggle to gel as an ensemble. The effect is a production that feels more like a showcase for individual performances and stand out moments.

This is a quiet, restrained read on Albee’s classic. Director Sarah Goodes is more attuned to the script’s underlying melancholy than some past revivals. The show begins underscored by a sombre piano melody (Sound Design by Grace Ferguson and Ethan Hunter is perfectly atmospheric) and a gravel pathway framed by New England maples projected onto the back wall of a late 1960s home.

Solitary trumpets and simple jazz orchestrations are peppered throughout the show. Paired with Jason Ng Junjie’s shadowy light design – warm art deco sconces contrasted with a sharp white light from outside – the production evokes something of the Southern Gothic melancholia of Tennessee Williams.

Kat Stewart in Red Stitch’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Photo © Jodie Hutchinson

The choice to pull back the show’s bombast in favour of something more minimal plays to the advantages of Red Stitch’s black-box venue. It’s an intimate theatre and Goodes handles it expertly. The set (designed by Harriet Oxley) is cosy, making the most of the close-confines with a cushy velvet couch and that all-important bar smack bang centre stage.

Notably, the stage is surrounded by a golden proscenium. This often well-lit frame deepens moments of meta-theatre, making the cast suddenly appear like four marionettes thrown into the middle of a Punch and Judy show.

The talented cast favour a more restrained, naturalistic style that’s also better suited to our close quarters. Martha, the spit-fire dilettante, is snakier in Kat Stewart’s hands; less unpredictable and brash and silkier, more elegant. She has a monied poise even in her drunkenness. But she also feels more fragile.

Stewart’s charisma and tight control of every comedic beat bellies an insecurity that seems to flicker behind the eyes and pass over her expression with magnetic control. Her body language and poise switches from self-confident to fragile in a second.

As Honey, Emily Goddard is similarly impressive, delivering what is often a thankless role with side-splitting physical comedy and a keen attention to timing. Her drunken expressions, interruptions and an uproarious interpretive dance number in Act II single her out as the flashiest and funniest performance. In effect, this production belongs to Stewart and Goddard, who draw the eye at every turn.

Emily Goddard in Red Stitch’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Photo © Jodie Hutchinson

The problem with this production lies in its ensemble scenes. Albee writes conversations in fragments; he favours interruptions, fast-paced clap backs and misunderstandings delivered in pithy one-liners. Timing is everything. A dropped line, or a missed interruption can stop the show dead.

Whiteley employs a dead-pan delivery as George. He’s wryer and more sarcastic; the perfect counter to Stewart’s bombastic wit. And just like Stewart’s Martha, there is a vulnerability just beneath the surface. Act II’s opening scene between Nick (Harvey Zielinski) and George is a standout. Whiteley’s sarcasm makes way for an affecting paternal warmth while Zielinski’s subtle naturalism adds a magnetic believability to the pair’s relationship.

But both Whiteley and Zielinski are clearly more comfortable in these smaller scenes. Whiteley recovers well from various line stumbles, but there is still a palpable sense that he is on the back foot in group scenes. His deadpan feels less intentional over time, and more like a compensation for a lack of confidence; a way to recite the lines instead of reacting to his scene partners in a way that might feel organic.

As a result, we lose much of the live-wire energy and dynamism needed to drive Martha and George’s sparring matches. He is also unable to inject George with the live-wire energy and threatening air needed for scenes of violence to work. But I’m sure this will improve over the season.

A mournful piano riff signals the end of this production, and with it the approaching dawn. Like any come down from a big night, there’s a palpable sadness and near-existential loneliness in the air. But despite the melancholy ending, there’s no doubt that the world’s biggest hangover will stop Martha and George from repeating the same thing tomorrow.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre, Melbourne until 17 December.

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